By NANCY ZEMAN
A portion of the west wall of the former Citizens National Bank collapsed Saturday morning, forcing the closure of a downtown street and leaving the board of trustees of the First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) scurrying to ensure the public’s safety.
The portion of the wall facing the alley and Pearman’s Pharmacy collapsed early Saturday morning. Dustin Melton of Pearman Pharmacy said he first reported the wall’s failure Saturday morning to authorities. The business later closed for the day for the safety of employees and customers.
“I got the first call (about the collapse) about 7:30 a.m.,” said Jim Bennett, who is chairman of the board of trustees of the church.
Court Street between Main and Central was sealed by order of Paris officials including city code enforcement director Jamie Littleton, Paris Fire Chief Brian Gates and Paris Fire and Safety Commissioner Drew Griffin.
Bennett said the first concern by those on the scene was public safety. He noted local residents were walking down the alley to pick up the bricks and look at the damage. “That whole wall could go anytime,” he said.
Workers will begin erecting a false wall down to the front of the building which will be bolted to the sidewalk, Bennett said. The false wall will also run east to about where the large golden eagle sits above the entrance to the building.
The false wall will limit parking on Court Street, Bennett said. That street will also be down to one lane once it is opened.
Once that work is complete, it is hoped the work will meet with the approval of the city and work to remove items in the building can begin. Among the items hoping to be retrieved are the volumes of the Paris Beacon-News from 1848 to 2006 — when the Jenison family sold the paper. The volumes are stored in the trust vault in the basement of the building.
Steve Benefiel of Pearman’s Pharmacy said Sunday evening the pharmacy will be open for business Monday but with a few changes. Customers will not be able to park on Court Street. Those who do wish to come to the store will be using the “Looking for Lincoln” building entrance, just west of the front door of the original entrance to the bank.
“Better yet, if someone needs a new or refill of a prescription please use our free delivery service,” he said.
The church purchased the building on June 1 from Dimond Bros. Insurance, which has been using it as the corporate headquarters for the insurance company. Dimond Bros. Chief Executive Officer Don Bartos said the problems with the west wall became apparent a few months ago. “We brought in a structural engineer to look at,” Bartos said.
At that time, Bartos said indicated to preserve the building would be a costly undertaking. The church was interested in the building not just as a parking lot for the congregation, but to expand with a multi-purpose building.
The church now owns the property from the north-south alley between the former bank down to — but no including Savoia’s, Bennett said.
“It has always been our intention to tear down the buildings and we were trying to get our ducks in order,” he explained. There are some projects that must be completed before the building is razed he said, including safe removal of asbestos floor tile in some areas of the building.
If the building should come down before the asbestos can be removed, the cost for demolition would skyrocket, Bennett said. “Everything would have to be removed to a special disposal area which is much more costly,” he said.
Bennett also emphasized the church has plans for the area. “It won’t just be a big parking lot,” he said. Fundraising is already underway to construct multi-purpose/gym for church events. “We really don’t have anything like that right now for big events,” he said. The church has a growing an active youth ministry, including God’s Gang which meets every Wednesday during the school year. While there is a small kitchen in the church basement, an all-congregation dinner isn’t really feasible at the church. “This would provide us options,” he said.
Bennett and Bartos noted there are items inside the building which are valuable and could be repurposed. “We had hoped to remove some of those items, but no item is so valuable to risk a human life,” Bennett said.
Benefiel emphasized that both the church and Bartos have “been absolutely great to work with and have kept us in the loop from the time the problems with the west wall were discovered.”
“There were problems with that wall long before Dimond Bros. was in the building,” he said.
Bennett agreed, noting the bricks that local residents were trying to pick up were most likely more than 100 years old. “Anyone who walks into the alley right now is risking their life,” he said. “Nothing is worth that.”
Although further research is required to be sure, Benefiel said 18 feet from the west wall east was added by the Citizens National Bank around 1960. That 18 feet was at one time the Morris Appliance Store owned by Dow Morris Sr., the father of the late Mary Ann Morris Sprouls and Dow Morris. That additional space was used for an expanding farm and trust department for the bank.
The stone on the front of the bank building was added at that time while the concrete panels were placed on the west wall next to the alley. Bennett said as far as he could tell, no further stabilization of the wall — other than the 500-pound individual panels — was completed.
The wall area which fell Saturday morning appears to contain at least four different brick layers, Benefiel said. He also noted around the window which was sealed now visible thanks to the wall collapse “the original plaster of the store can be seen.”
A 60-foot boom is needed to bring down the building and church leaders were seeking one before Saturday’s collapse, Bennett said.
Bennett emphasized the public needs to stay away from the alley and the building. “It’s a dangerous place,” he said. It’s a death trap. If it lets go, that whole wall is going to come down.”